Daughter finds the write words from dad
My father rarely wrote anything down. Take birthday cards, for example: While my mother would embellish the printed message with sweet, loving passages and hand-drawn hearts, my father’s heavy script only appeared at the bottom, where he signed his name. It seemed strange for a man who told me, when I began writing fiction in grade school, that he once wanted to be an author.
As I got older, I realized his reticence stemmed from something deeper — it was hard for him to express emotions, either verbally or on the page. He rarely spent quality time with me, and never seemed interested in my personal life. Sure, he would praise a high test score at the dinner table or, on rare occasions, help me with a math problem or science project, but conversation never flowed naturally between us. Our brief exchanges usually petered out when he turned back to the TV or the newspaper, detached.
I grew envious of my friends’ relationships with their fathers. They had dads who remembered the names of their friends, who shared inside jokes, who lent a patient ear during times of teen angst. I couldn’t imagine confiding in my father about a crush or any kind of school drama. He only seemed to care whether I kept enough gas in the car. There was a moat between us, and eventually, neither of us remembered how to cross it.
Just before I left for college, we seemed to find common ground. He was perpetually immersed with books about geopolitics, and I was hungry to expand my worldview. He began to treat me as an intellectual partner, if not an emotional one. We talked stocks, commodities markets, global finances. I felt privileged that he was finally lavishing me with attention.
One day, in a moment of boldness, I suggested, “Why don’t you write me a book?” It would give him a chance to become the author he wanted to be, and it would also fulfill a selfish desire of mine: I craved more communication from him; I was starved for his words. But he never picked up a pen.
When Alzheimer’s disease began to set in six years ago, my father’s writing, ironically, was our first clue. My mother and I began to find notes around their house — email addresses taped to the computer screen, phone numbers scrawled on the desk and on filing cabinets. Once, we found a short paragraph he had written, describing the nature of his Army service in the 1950s. Its only purpose that we could fathom was to preserve the memory. I held onto it — even a few sentences in his choppy hand were better than nothing.
The years of distance between us have taken their toll. Now that my father stays in a nursing home, I don’t visit him as often as I could. There is even less to say than before, when he still remembered what I do, where I live, my husband and cats — when he could easily recall my name.
But a few months ago, my father’s second cousin in Israel called with a bombshell: My dad had written him letters over the years. Lots of them.
Letters? When he could barely sign a greeting card?
Not only that, but my father’s relative had dutifully preserved them. He scanned a few so I could see them, and I caught my breath as the images popped up on my computer screen.
October 2000: Rachel has one more year in high school, so we are starting to look for a university she could attend. She is mostly interested in art, literature and creative writing.
March 2002: Rachel will be starting her university education in late August. She will be 200 miles away and we will miss her.
I felt gobsmacked. So there was life on the other side of the moat, after all. And caring. And pride. Had I missed something?
As my father’s illness progresses, the channels between us are opening in other surprising ways: He’s starting to say all of the things he never could when he was well. When he sees me walk into the room now, his knitted brow relaxes and the corners of his mouth turn upward. On walks, he asks to hold my hand. He kisses my fingers and tells me, “You’re beautiful.”
When I was sitting next to him on the couch recently, he suddenly turned to me, clutched my hand and announced, “My darling girl.” I was stunned. Had I been his darling girl this whole time? Why didn’t he say so?
Yet maybe, in his own way, he did. I printed the letters and showed his heartfelt sentiments to my mother.
“Shocking, right?” I asked her.
“Not shocking,” she countered. “You don’t remember everything.”
“What don’t I remember?”
“How much he cared for you.”
So maybe there’s another side to the narrative. Maybe I, too, am guilty of forgetting — of focusing only on my resentment and the ways I felt cheated over the years, of holding fast to my grudge. Thinking back, maybe I closed my ears to my dad and ignored the quiet hum of how he felt. Just because he didn’t say kind words out loud doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
After seeing his thoughts written down — uttered, it turns out, to someone else — I’m starting to re-evaluate his constant inquiries about the gas in my car, about whether I lock my doors at night. That might have been the closest he could come to saying, “You’re important to me.”
I can’t ask my father for closure now; there’s no point in replaying memories he can no longer recall. Maybe memory only has so much value, anyway. Maybe there is healing in letting go.